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Yahoo's Mayer Hits CES to Tout Ads, Tech Star Pogue and, Natch, Herself

Here comes the geek boom, people!

Asa Mathat

Last year, when Marissa Mayer made her first foray to CES in Las Vegas as CEO of Yahoo, she garnered mixed impressions from the marketers she had come to curry favor with.

The 2013 trip included a high-profile fireside chat with Starcom MediaVest Group Global CEO Laura Desmond, in front of several hundred ad clients, as well as a series of one-on-one meetings with top marketing execs. For some, Mayer was a fresh-faced revelation from previous Yahoo CEOs, while others described her as oddly removed and even disinterested from the main money-making business of Yahoo.

“What I don’t see yet is what the vision for Yahoo is, articulating the bigger ideas than just presenting an assemblage of products,” said Rob Norman, chief digital officer of GroupM Global, at the time. “And what everyone would still like to see is what is the escape route from being a portal or even re-emerging from what that means, so I am really interested in what she has to say.”

While she did not reveal a lot last year on the important topic, sources inside the Silicon Valley Internet giant said that Mayer now has much to say about ads at 2014 CES. She will be appearing at a series of events, meetings and, most importantly, her first keynote address tomorrow afternoon, as part of the Tech Titans keynote series at the annual mosh pit of tech.

According to those familiar with her plans — along with the de rigueur musical star appearance (I have been told Yahoo has brought in John Legend, but we’ll see) — Mayer will focus on advertising innovations and content efforts rather than introduce any kind of new product that CES is famous for.

Among the possible topics: Increased ability for marketers to buy ads — especially the aggressive new push of its Stream Ads — across Yahoo’s many formats (Web, mobile, tablets) to improve advertiser experience. For example, Mayer may show off some of these capabilities on its Tumblr property, which has been adding stream advertising and improved search since its $1.1 billion acquisition by Yahoo last May, as well as its more creative native ad offerings.

Untitled copyDelivering the message to advertisers that they really matter will be key for Mayer (see this nice “Purple Service” offering here to them, for example). That’s especially important since Yahoo’s core business has continued to lag badly, without much improvement and some key declines in her nearly 18-month tenure. While the stock has risen dramatically, investors have been largely attracted to massive valuation gains at China’s Alibaba Group, in which Yahoo holds a 24 percent stake. Alibaba’s stellar performance has been a great boon to Mayer, a gift from co-founder Jerry Yang that keeps on giving. But it’s clear she has goals beyond Yahoo excelling solely by being a boffo Asian investment vehicle.

The company announces its fourth quarter results in late January and Wall Street will be watching closely for some sign of life in its ever-smaller revenue and signs that Mayer’s product focus is paying dividends. In the third quarter, for example, Yahoo said it earned 34 cents, a 13 percent decline, on revenue of $1.08 billion, a one percent decline from the same period a year ago.

That pressure to perform in the ad space has caused a lot of tension inside Yahoo, said a multitude of sources, especially between Mayer and COO Henrique De Castro. Sources present at a number of meetings both attended said the relationship had become less cordial than previously and that Mayer has begun to significantly insert herself in content and media efforts.

Mayer brought De Castro over from Google, where she was also an exec, last year, with the hope that he would be able to turbocharge the struggling ad business at Yahoo. Despite a giant paycheck she gave him and a lot of internal rejiggering, that has not happened as yet, and it has caused the persistent rumors of his departure to surface periodically inside and outside the company.

The noise has gotten louder recently, perhaps in anticipation of the fourth-quarter results, though he might be redeemed once Stream Ads kick in. In addition, De Castro still has not replaced former Yahoo media head Mickie Rosen — a key job — since last year, which has also prompted speculation about his ongoing role. Many sources said De Castro’s relations with Ned Brody and Kathy Savitt have also become tense, with Savitt angling to take over media and Brody more prominent as the face of Yahoo’s ad push. Brody came to Yahoo after a tussle with AOL, his former employer, to run ad sales.

Where all this jockeying — and it is just that, no matter what Yahoo PR puts out — leaves De Castro is anyone’s guess at this point.

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What is clear is that Mayer has been the pole player in leading the content efforts, which are directly related to Yahoo’s ad business. She personally shepherded both recent high-profile deals to bring the New York Times’ tech reviewer David Pogue and TV news star Katie Couric to Yahoo.

Pogue, obviously, will play a big role at CES, accompanying Mayer to many of the events there. He will also have daily chats at the “Yahoo Tech Mix,” doing interviews with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and T-Mobile CEO John Legere.

Pogue, of course, is the face of Yahoo tech now, in charge of creating a new splashy section for the site and hiring some well-known tech writers to do daily columns. The site will also apparently include detailed how-to videos and photo shows, according to sources.

In a speech he gave to Yahoo employees recently, Pogue told them that the content on the new tech site was aimed at not the elites of the tech world, but the “normals.” People who heard the speech said Pogue noted that normals were not the people who live on the coasts, but those regular folks in the middle of the country who are flummoxed by the fast-changing digital world. It will be interesting to see if Pogue is onstage at Mayer’s CES keynote — it seems likely — and what he says if he does appear.

Of course, the real star is still Mayer, a telegenic tornado of a CEO, who has used her personal image and techie cred to try to burnish Yahoo’s reputation. So far, despite a lot of upgrades of its current products and a myriad of small mobile and video acquisitions, a great deal of the buzz around Yahoo has largely been reflected glory from Mayer to the company.

While much of the attention on her has been decidedly sunny, there have been clouds, including Yahoo’s ham-handed handling of its Yahoo Mail outage and, just last week, news that it had allowed ads with malware to possibly infect users.

Both consumer incidents had traces of stonewalling. As CNET’s Dan Farber noted in a post about the malware attack, despite statements from Yahoo:

“At this point, Yahoo hasn’t addressed any of the details, such as how the malware exploit got into its Web pages, how many users are impacted, and what victims of the attack should do. The company may still be gathering data.”

Of course, such pesky details are likely to get little mention tomorrow when Mayer addresses CES attendees. Instead, expect more razzle-dazzle or, as the song goes: “Here comes the boom.”

After an email inquiry, Pogue wrote back jauntily — believe me, this is a good thing coming from loose-lips-sink-ships Yahoo these days — that “all will be made clear at tomorrow’s keynote.” I also sent two emails to Yahoo PR to garner comment, but nothing thus far!

So until I hear back, here’s Nelly to bring that boom:

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